, Volume 29, Issue 2, pp 273-290

Shifting Economic Impacts from Weather Extremes in the United States: A Result of Societal Changes, Not Global Warming

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Abstract

Loss values from extremes in the U.S. and elsewhere have been more qualitativethan quantitative, but recent pressures for better information have led to newassessments and better estimates of financial losses from extremes. These pressureshave included concerns over potential impacts of more extremes due to global warmingfostered by ever increasing costs to the insurance industry and government from weather extremes; plus a series of massive losses during the past 15 years (drought of 1988–1989,Hurricane Andrew in 1992, and Midwestern 1993 floods). These recent assessmentsattempted to adjust data for societal changes over time and thus derived new and betterestimates of losses for seven major extremes than existed previously. Three extremeshave annual average losses in excess of a billion dollars (1998 dollars) includinghurricanes ($4.2 billion), floods ($3.2 billion), and severe local storms ($1.6 billion).One extreme and its adjusted losses exhibit upward trends (floods), but all others showno increases with time or temporal decreases (hail, hurricanes, tornadoes, and severethunderstorms). Annual national losses during 1950–1997 from the three major extremes, plus four others (hail, tornadoes, winter storms, and wind storms), collectively reveal no upward or downward trend over time, with an average annual loss of $10.3 billion. The quality loss values do not indicate an increase as has been postulated for global warming. The good news is that better estimates of impacts now exist, but the bad news is that they are still estimates and do not include sizable unmeasured losses. If accurate data on the economic impacts from weather extremes are seen as important for scientific research and policy-making for global warming, the U.S. needs a continuing program to adequately measure losses from weather extremes.